She wakes with the feeling of a knife punctured in her throat.
A gasp rips its way out her mouth as she lurches upright, the coiled fabric of her bed a snake squeezing the life from her lungs. She tears the blanket from her skin and yanks up the corner of her jumpsuit, exposing soft, unmarred flesh to the stale black air.
Blood. The torn tissues of her shirt. A shard of gleaming silver flecked red.
Everything beyond that is a haze. There's a dinner, and meat that tastes like vomit. Gi-hun. He makes a promise. A promise to look after Cheol. That's enough. It has to be enough.
She drags the back of her hand along her forehead. No fever. Just sweat, sticky and unpleasant, but not too uncommon after a bad dream.
She knew a few things about dreams. The way they curdled her sleep rotten. How they picked themselves apart and reformed into the skeleton of a nightmare. It was easier, most nights, to stay awake for as long as she could; eyes bruised, head caught in a fog, so when at last sleep claimed her, she was far too braindead for any dream to come near.
Just a dream.
Dreams can't hurt her.
Sae-byeok feels her throat. She can swear the echo of a wound still lingers.
That stupid nickname -
Gi-hun is perched before a barricade of beams. The old man is asleep beside him, his throaty snores rough and course in her ears.
"You too, eh?"
Her hand slowly comes to rest upon her lap. Shaky.
Has he also –
He barks a laugh. "This guy promised to keep me company and look at him. He's already passed out. I envy the old. I don't think I could sleep even if I wanted to."
And I want to hung heavy in the air, unspoken.
It was just a dream. All of it. The wound, the knife, the dinner party, the glass steppingstones, the marbles, Ji-yeong –
She doesn't even realize the name escapes her lips before it's too late. Gi-hun is looking at her. Brow furrowed.
"Who's that?" Then a sly smile worms its way onto his lips. "Oh! A secret lover, perhaps? Ah, I remember what it's like to be young. Women haunting you even in your sleep."
"You talk too much." Sae-byeok casts her gaze around their makeshift den. There's Sang-woo, one eye cracked open – a conniving bastard if she ever saw one. Dreams be damned. She wouldn't trust him if he were the last man on earth. Especially if he were the last man on earth. Next to him is Ali. He's curled in on himself. Comfortable. Trusting.
The religious nut is muttering a fervent prayer. She wishes he'd just shut up. If there is a God, he's not in this room. That's for certain.
And furthest away from the others, back pushed up against the wall –
Her voice cracks.
She wants to cry.
Fuck. It was just a dream. Why does she want to cry?
Ji-yeong opens her eyes. Makes a frown.
"How'd you know my name?"
The next game requires pairs.
She's starting to wonder if her dream really was just a dream after all.
Ji-yeong saunters up, hands tucked in her pockets. "Hey. Let's do this."
The exact same words as before. Her heart stutters.
Ji-yeong pulls out one hand and extends it in an offering. Of partnership. Of connection. Of death.
"No." She can't. Not this again.
Not in the same way as last time.
Ji-yeong cracks a smile. "Really?" She looks around. "So, what? You're just gonna beg these losers for a bone? I can't imagine you doing that. It would be so uncool."
Sae-byeok scoffs. "Please. I wouldn't have to beg." She turns. A squat man, skin ashen gray from stress, is bumbling around, desperately trying to get anyone to shake hands with him. Most pull away. Deok-su spits at his feet. Tears are beginning to crowd his eyes as the timer ticks down. Three minutes left.
"You." He meets her gaze and, the slimy bastard, he ignores her. As if he has the luxury. "I'm talking to you!" She strides forward. Grabs his arm. She can feel Ji-yeong's eyes burning holes into her back. Can sense the laughter bubbling on her tongue. It only makes her angrier.
"Let go of me," the man snaps. "I'm not interested!"
"Why?" Sae-byeok drags him closer. His grimy fingers try to pry her own away, but her grip is tight, unbreakable. Red welts are beginning to form on his skin. "Scared?" He has the same expression as Sang-woo: the one disgusted by her womanhood, as if it's a weakness, not a strength.
She thinks she'll take some joy in ensuring his demise.
Her grip loosens. His lips twist into a scowl. But he takes her hand. They shake. Sealing their partnership.
Ji-yeong rocks back on her heels, eyebrows raised. "Wow. I'm wounded," she drawls, in a voice that seeps mock-hurt. Sae-byeok wants to tell her it isn't personal. That her dream that may not have been just a dream told of a time when they were partners, where that simple partnership ensured a bullet to one of their heads.
"I would've made sure you won, y'know?" she says. "If you paired with me."
"I know," Sae-byeok replies.
She thought she'd take some miniscule amount of satisfaction in watching her partner die. He's the whiny kind of man. Like Deok-su, but without the muscle and influence. They play a simple game of Bounce Eye. It's an easy win.
He's throwing a punch at her, screaming every profanity under the sun, when a bullet finds its way into his head. His blood spatters her cheek. She wants to throw up. But she can't. Not yet. Not now. Not ever.
There's something romantic about taking a life.
Except there isn't. It's not romantic at all.
The blood crusts and dries and she scratches and scratches until her fingernails are dark and full and black.
"Oh hey! You're alive. That's a shocker."
Ji-yeong seeks her out as soon as she's back in the common room. She swaggers in, lackadaisical as ever, shoulders rolled back, and head held high. Alive. Saebyeok could cry. But she doesn't. She merely stops clawing at her cheek. Allows her arms to sag in relief.
Jiyeong joins her on the bunkbed, one leg swung carelessly over the edge, the other tucked beneath her. "I'm a bit relieved if I'm being honest. I didn't want my secret admirer to bite the bullet so soon."
"Your secret admirer?" Sae-byeok raises her eyebrows. "Don't flatter yourself."
Ji-yeong grins. She shows her hand and wriggles her fingers suggestively. "You knew my name before I even told it to you, stalker. Sorry, but you don't have much of a leg to stand on."
Sae-byeok rubs her neck. She's not about to sound like an idiot and say something stupid. Like, "I heard it in a dream." Gross.
"God, you're stiff." Ji-yeong flops on her side, a long, large sigh deflating her chest. "Doesn't it get boring? Just sitting there with your whole 'ooooo I'm so mysterious' thing going on. How'd you know my name anyway? It's not like we've ever met before."
"I heard it," she says. "In a dream." Then proceeds to mentally punch herself.
But Ji-yeong's laugh is loud and full of life. Her regret eases in an instant. That simple sound warms the air. It makes her forget about the blood crusted under her fingernails. It makes her forget. "As far as pickup lines go," she teases, "that is one of the worst. And I've spent most of my life in a women's prison. Believe me, I've heard it all."
A surge of panic shoots through her veins. Ji-yeong is looking at her through hooded eyes in a way that makes her heart seize, clench, pause. There's never been an opportunity for this. Not really. Figuring out her sexuality, where she fits in the world. Talking to people her own age. None of that matters in the grand scheme of things. Not when she has a brother to take care of. A mother to rescue.
"I don't swing that way," she mutters. It's a lie.
"Hm? Could've fooled me." But Ji-yeong takes the hint and straightens herself up. Crosses her legs. Shields her lips with her hand and leans forward as if she's a five-year-old girl about to share the latest scrap of playground gossip. "Well then it's only fair you tell me yours."
"What? Don't tell me you don't have one."
"Then what's the big secret? Aside from, you know, everything about you." There's an undercurrent of tension in those words. Not quite a threat, but close. A challenge, maybe. She supposes, from Ji-yeong's point of view, she's an enigma, who turns up out of nowhere with her name on her tongue.
Ji-yeong leans closer. She smells like sweat and unwashed hair. There's nothing presentable about her. But there's also something alluring in that. In the loss of performative beauty that has come to inhibit this hell. Sae-byeok breathes in to steady herself. And maybe to savor the moment just that little bit longer.
"It's Sae-byeok. My name."
"Sae-byeok." She holds it in her mouth and rolls it around like a lollypop. "Sae-byeok," she says again, then stretches it longer, as if to torture her. "Sae-byeok."
"Stop." Heat flushes her cheeks. "I get it. It's a stupid name."
Ji-yeong blinks. "Huh? I don't think that at all. In fact, I think it's pretty."
She's had her name be called 'pretty' before. In the slick, oily way that men on the streets would taste it upon their wretched tongues; in the way Deok-su would allow it to roll out his throat, as if it were something only he was allowed to say. Pretty this, pretty that, but not in the ways that mattered; pretty in the ways that served their eyes only. But girls had a way of saying the word devoid of slime. Specifically, Ji-yeong had a way of saying it like she has never said it about anyone else before. And maybe she hasn't. Or maybe she has. They really know so little about each other.
But she wants to learn more.
She has to learn more.
"Well, Sae-byeok." Ji-yeong swings her legs over the bed and stands up, arching her back in a long, rippling stretch. She tosses her a wink and Sae-byeok's fever reaches a new pitch. "Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me."
Sae-byeok can't remember the exact order of the tempered class. But she remembers the key to winning this game. Backlines. Final numbers. She grasps Ji-yeong's hand in her own (her hand is so soft, she thinks) and pulls the girl to the end row of vests. "Take it," she says. Jerks her head towards No. 16.
Ji-yeong pulls her hand free, a complaint bubbling on her lips. "Jeez, way to be rough! What makes you so sure this is the correct choice anyway?"
"Just trust me." Sae-byeok takes No. 15. The vest feels heavy around her shoulders.
When she turns back to Ji-yeong, she's not wearing the sixteenth vest. That number goes to Gi-hun. Instead, she's donned the number thirteen with pride. "What?" she says, when she sees her glare. "I was born on the 13th. It's my lucky number."
"Why'd you do that?" Her voice is hollow.
"The same reason you chose yours." Her eyes are narrowed, voice adopting that familiar challenge of a tone. "A feeling. Isn't that right?"
The world falls away from Sae-byeok. The other players, the staff, the announcer's robotic voice – all fades into a foggy, impenetrable background. "You're going to die," she says, weakly.
"I know," says Ji-yeong. And she does.
The same thing happens.
She's too lost in a blur to care.
An explosion of glass. A wound to her side. This time, she doesn't dress it. Doesn't attempt to stem the blood flow. She's a goner. There's no avoiding that.
Sang-woo doesn't even need to stick a knife to her throat. As she lies dying in her bed, Gi-hun at her shoulders, shaking, shouting (shutupshutupshutup), she thinks of how much nicer this dream has been. How Ji-yeong said her name as if it were something to be treasured, not dominated.
When I wake up, I'm going to tell her, she decides. What she's going to tell her, she doesn't know.
a/n - hihi! omg thank you so much for reading what is the first chapter out of six. it would mean a lot if you let me know what you think! im trying out a different writing style here dgfg i hope it's not too tedious.